• How To Approach An Unfamiliar Hymn In 4 Steps

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    If you want to learn how to approach an unfamiliar hymn, then this lesson is for you!.

    Although this lesson is written with the intermediate player in mind, beginners and pre-advanced players alike can benefit from this lesson.

    Let’s get started by taking a look at the structure of hymn songs.

    A Short Note On Hymns

    Although hymns are songs, what sets them apart from regular songs is their structure and we’ll be discussing that in this segment.

    A hymn is a conventional song that is usually sung as a praise unto God. Hymns are said to be conventional songs because their composers are exposed to classical music training, and tend to follow long-established principles of composition.

    The chorus of a vast majority of hymns consists of two parts (aka – “phrases”) and each phrase usually has two lines.

    “Check Out The Following Hymns…”

    Example #1 – “Holy, Holy, Holy”

    “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
    Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.
    Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
    God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

    The hymn above has two phrases (or parts). The first phrase is in blue, while the second phrase is red.

    Example #2 – “Blessed Assurance”

    “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
    Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
    Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
    Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.”

    The hymn above also has two phrases. The first phrase is in blue, while the second phrase is red.

    Example #3 – “To God Be The Glory”

    “To God be the glory, great things He hath done,
    So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
    Who yielded His life our redemption to win,
    And opened the life-gate that all may go in.”

    The hymn above also has two phrases. The first phrase is in blue, while the second phrase is red.

    “We can go on and on…”

    From the three examples you’ve seen in this segment, it’s clear that a large number of hymns are structured to have two phrases. To take us to the next level in this study, I’ll be giving you a detailed explanation on the rationale behind the two-phrase structure of hymns.

    An Exposition On The Two Phrases In A Hymn

    The two phrases in a hymn have their individual functions, the first phrase (usually consisting of two lines) is structured to sound like a question, while the second phrase is structured to sound like an answer to the question of the first phrase.

    Let’s break up our hymn examples of the previous segment into question and answer phrases

    In the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”

    Question:

    “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
    Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.

    Answer:
    Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
    God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

    In the hymn “Blessed Assurance”

    Question:

    “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
    Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!

    Answer:
    Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
    Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.”

    In the Hymn “To God Be The Glory”

    Question:

    “To God be the glory, great things He hath done,
    So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,

    Answer:
    Who yielded His life our redemption to win,
    And opened the life-gate that all may go in.”

    The first line of each of the phrases have the same melody, and that’s why To God be the glory, great things He hath done“, and “Who yielded His life our redemption to win,” have the same melody even though they belong to two different phrases.

    However, it is important to note that the first phrase ends in chord 5, while the second phrase ends in chord 1.

    Ending a phrase in chord 1 sounds satisfactory because chord 1 (aka – “the tonic chord“) is the most stable chord in any key, while ending a phrase in chord 5 (aka – “the dominant chord“) sounds unsatisfactory.

    It is not a coincidence that the first phrase has an unsatisfactory end, which creates the question that the second phrase (that has a satisfactory end) will answer.

    “Check Out This Example In The Key Of C…”

    First Phrase Of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”

    “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
    Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee:

    Attention: Phrase ends in chord 5, creating an unsatisfactory end – a question.

    Second Phrase Of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”

    Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
    God in three persons, blessed Trinity:

    Attention: Phrase ends in chord 1, creating a satisfactory end – an answer to the first phrase.

    In a nutshell, there are two phrases to expect while playing a hymn – the question and the answer phrases. The former ending in chord 5 and the latter in chord 1.

    How To Approach An Unfamiliar Hymn

    If you’re an experienced church musician, then you must have found yourself in a situation where you’ll have to play an unfamiliar hymn. I’ve found myself in such situations severally and trust me it can be embarrassing if you don’t have a clue of what to do.

    With what we’ve covered in this lesson, you [or anyone] can confidently approach an unfamiliar hymn. So, here are 4 steps to approaching an unfamiliar hymn:

    • Starting the hymn
    • Ending the first phrase
    • Starting the second phrase
    • Ending the hymn

    …let’s explore these steps.

    Step #1 – Starting The Hymn

    Believe it or not, most hymns start off on chord 1 (aka – “the tonic chord“.) If you’re aware of this, then you don’t need to wonder what to play at the beginning of the hymn.

    “Check Out How Hymns Start Off Using These Three Classic Examples…”

    Example #1 – “Holy, Holy, Holy”

    “Holy:

    …holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

    Observation: That’s chord 1 on the “holy.”

    Example #2 – “Blessed Assurance”

    “Blessed assu:

    …rance, Jesus is mine!

    Observation: The hymn starts off with chord 1 on the “assurance .”

    Example #3 – “To God Be The Glory”

    “To God be the glo:

    …ry, great things He hath done,

    Observation: Here, we also have chord 1 on the “glory.”

    Attention: It’s not 100% of the time that hymns start off in chord 1. There are rare occasions that a hymn may start off in chord 4 or 5. Here’s a classic example using the chorus of the hymn “When Peace Like A River”:

    It is well:

    …it is well.

    Although it’s not 100% of the time that songs start off in chord 1, I can bet you 17 nickels that 85% of the times songs start off in chord 1.

    Step #2 -Ending The First Phrase

    After starting the hymn (in chord 1), the next thing that really counts is ending the first phrase in chord 5. But beyond the knowledge of ending the first phrase in chord 5, there is need to create an anticipation for it.

    The strongest option of what can create an anticipation for chord 5 with, is the chromatic supertonic chord.

    (Don’t get fooled by the terms!)

    The term supertonic is the technical name for the second degree of the scale. Although the supertonic chord in the key of C is the Dmin7 chord:

    …we’re using the Ddom7 chord:

    …because it contains an F# tone:

    …which is foreign to the key of C:

    In a nutshell, to end the first phrase, we can use the Ddom7 chord (chord 2):

    …to create an anticipation for the G major triad (chord 5):

    “Let’s Take A Few Examples…”

    Example #1 – “Holy, Holy, Holy”

    Early in the morning our song (the chromatic supertonic chord):

    …shall rise to thee (ending the first phrase):

    Example #2 – “Blessed Assurance”

    Oh, what a foretaste of glo (the chromatic supertonic chord):

    …ry divine (ending the first phrase):

    Example #3 – “To God Be The Glory”

    So loved He the world that He gave (the chromatic supertonic chord):

    …us His Son (ending the first phrase):

    Step #3 -Starting The Second Phrase

    Most times, the second phrase starts out exactly the same way the first phrase did. You must also look out for hymn songs that have two different phrases.

    It’s common to have the second phrase start out in chord 1.

    Example #1 – “Holy, Holy, Holy”

    Holy (starting the second phrase):

    , holy, holy! Merciful and mighty.

    Example #2 – “Blessed Assurance”

    Heir of salva (starting the second phrase):

    …tion, purchase of God.

    Example #3 – “To God Be The Glory”

    Who yielded His life (starting the second phrase):

    …our redemption to win.

    Step #4 – Ending The Hymn

    The ending of a hymn is satisfactory – most of the time, and there’s no better way to get that satisfactory ending than ending a song in chord 1:

    However, we must also prepare for chord 1 by anticipating with the Gdom7 chord (chord 5):

    Example #1 – “Holy, Holy, Holy”

    God in three persons, blessed (the dominant chord):

    …Trinity (ending the hymn):

    Example #2 – “Blessed Assurance”

    Born of His Spirit, washed (the dominant chord):

    …in His blood (ending the hymn):

    Example #3 – “To God Be The Glory”

    And opened the life-gate that all (the dominant chord):

    …may go in (ending the hymn):

    “Let’s Approach The Three Hymns We Covered Earlier Using These 4 Steps”

    Example #1 – “Holy, Holy, Holy”

    “Holy (starting the hymn[1]):

    …holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
    Early in the morning our song (the chromatic supertonic chord):

    …shall rise to thee (ending the first phrase[2]):
    Holy (starting the second phrase[3]):

    , holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
    God in three persons, blessed (the dominant chord):

    …Trinity (ending the hymn[4]):

    Example #2 – “Blessed Assurance”

    “Blessed assu (starting the hymn[1]):

    …rance, Jesus is mine!
    Oh, what a foretaste of glo (the chromatic supertonic chord):

    …ry divine (ending the first phrase[2]):

    Heir of salva (starting the second phrase[3]):

    …tion, purchase of God,
    Born of His Spirit, washed (the dominant chord):

    …in His blood (ending the hymn[4]):

    Example #3 – “To God Be The Glory”

    “To God be the glo (starting the hymn[1]):

    …ry, great things He hath done,
    So loved He the world that He gave (the chromatic supertonic chord):

    …us His Son (ending the first phrase[2]):

    Who yielded His life (starting the second phrase[3]):

    …our redemption to win,
    And opened the life-gate that all (the dominant chord):

    …may go in (ending the hymn[4]):

    Final Words

    What we’ve learned so far in this lesson on the structure of hymns can be applied to 85% of the chorus and/or verses of the hymns that are commonly sung in church.

    Feel free to explore other popular hymns you know – don’t only limit it to the ones we covered in this lesson, and don’t forget to transpose to other keys.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as a music consultant and content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with thousands of musicians across the world.

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